Lebanon after Ta'if: another reform opportunity lost?

Author:Hudson, Michael C.
Position:Ta'if Accord

The national accord document for Lebanon issued in Ta'if, Saudi Arabia, on 24 October 1989 was composed with the active mediation of Saudi Arabia, discreet participation by the United States, and behind-the-scenes influence from Syria. Signed by nearly all the surviving members of the 1972 Chamber of Deputies, it was the blueprint for restoring the Lebanese state and ending the long civil war. The Ta'if Accord modifies the "rules of the game" of the First Republic but does not alter their basic character. Postwar Lebanon - in form - remains more-or-less a consociational democracy. Sectarian proportionality is still there, but the proportion of Muslim to Christian legislators and officials has been increased to 50-50. The President of the Republic remains for the foreseeable future a Maronite Christian, but his powers have been substantially reduced. The Prime Minister remains a Sunni Muslim, but the powers of the Council of Ministers, which he chairs, have been increased. The office of President of the Chamber of Deputies still goes to a Shiite, but his tenn has been increased from one year to four, and so has his influence. The power of the Chamber itself is increased by the elimination of the old provision allowing the Executive to pass "urgent" legislation without parliamentary involvement. At the same time, Ta'if explicitly calls for a gradual phasing out of political sectarianism.

Other provisions of the Ta'if Accord relating to Lebanon's external relations were more controversial. "Lebanon is Arab in belonging and in identity" is a stronger expression of Lebanon's "Arabness" than was found in the 1943 National Pact and thus alarmed some Christians. Even more alarming was the provision authorizing a "special relationship" between Lebanon and Syria, one that would give Syria a privileged position on matters relating to national security, among other things. Moreover, a pledge by Syria to redeploy its forces in Lebanon east of the Lebanon mountain range within two years of the formal ratification of the Ta'if Accord, the holding of a new presidential election, and the formation of a new cabinet were also conditioned by "the approval of political reforms." Two years later, with a new president and cabinet in place, the Syrians refused to redeploy on the ground that all the political reforms (by which they meant beginning the process of desectarianization) had not yet been achieved. Furthermore, as long as Israel controlled its self-styled "security zone" in southern Lebanon, Syria could justify keeping its own military presence in the country.


In theory, Ta'if had much to recommend it. True, it restored a "temporary" confessional order, but one that was fine-tuned to accommodate new realities. But Ta'if on paper indicated much more than a simple restoration of the confessionalism of the past. Its clear commitment to the dismantling of confessionalism and the strengthening of the public sphere through an enhanced judiciary was commendable. The nagging question remains, however: Did those who were responsible for the document really believe in its liberal-reform provisions? From a realpolitik perspective it is easy to imagine that the Syrian, American, and Saudi governments were minimalists, preferring to make tactical adjustments rather than risk a transformation that could threaten their respective Lebanese clients. The aging parliamentarians who collectively legitimized the Accord did not include many reformers. One cannot repress the suspicion that Ta'if in 1989, like the National Pact of 1943, was merely paying lip-service to liberal reform. In any event, Ta'if in practice deviated significantly from Ta'if in theory.


General Aoun and many Maronite Christians either opposed Ta'if outright or accepted it with great reluctance. They also opposed the holding of new parliamentary elections in August and September 1992, but Syria refused all requests to delay them, even for technical reasons: How could the electoral rolls be updated following the vast demographic upheavals of the previous 17 years? The elections were held nevertheless, and notwithstanding the shadow of Syria and a boycott in much of the Maronite heartland of Mount Lebanon, the new Parliament was welcomed in most other parts of the country as an important, if flawed, step on the road back to stable representative government. Comparison of the 1992 election with its predecessors revealed lower voter participation, especially in Mount Lebanon, where it averaged around 16 percent, although it was closer to 40 percent in the Biqa' and South Lebanon; the overall turnout in 1972 had been 55 percent. As for the composition of the new parliament, new entrants not surprisingly filled 80 percent of the 128 seats; yet fully a third of the deputies either had been elected to earlier parliaments or were close relatives (sons, sons-in-law, brothers, or cousins) of former deputies. Of twenty "parliamentary families" prominently represented in parliaments going back to 1943, eleven were found in the 1992 parliament, suggesting - for better or worse - a certain continuity. The occupational background of deputies revealed a continuing steep decline in large landowners and lawyers and a large increase in the professions - doctors, journalists, engineers, clerics, retired civil servants, and professional politicians.

There were several striking trends in the political makeup of the new Chamber. Some 47 percent of the new deputies were affiliated with a political party or movement (as opposed to a traditional grouping or independent status), compared with 31 percent in the 1972 parliament. Some of the parties showed continuity - for example, the Ba'th, Walid Junblat's Progressive Socialist Party, and the Armenian Dashnak. More striking was the disappearance of many traditional Maronite actors - personalities like the Shamuns, Gemayels, and Eddes, and parties like the Phalanges. Absent too were prominent anti-Syrian militia chiefs of the civil war such as Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea. Many Maronites of Mount Lebanon looked on these results as depressing evidence of the end of Maronite hegemony, and some waited for General Aoun to return from exile in France to restore Lebanon as a "Christian" country. But not only were traditional Christian players missing, there were now new Islamist actors on the parliamentary scene: the Shiite parties Areal and Hizballah now constituted the largest blocs in parliament - 12 for Hizballah (and allies) and 20 for Areal. There was also small but significant representation from two Sunni Muslim Islamist parties. Even Lebanese observers who detested Syria's involvement in Lebanese politics admitted that Damascus had on the whole acted skillfully to implant its influence in postwar Lebanon while allowing quite a broad spectrum of traditional and new political forces a place on the political stage. If Lebanon were to emerge definitively from its past agony, the traditional Christians of Mount Lebanon would need to be brought back into the formal system one way or another. On the whole, then, the 1992 elections raised as many questions as they answered about Lebanon's future stability. The simple fact that they had taken place was perhaps the most positive result, but they did little to help relegitimize the Lebanese political system. However, a reminder of Syria's hegemony in Lebanon was the decision in November 1995 to amend the constitution to extend the mandate of President Elias Hrawi - a Maronite "outsider" - for an additional three years.

The elections of August-September 1996, therefore, took on particular significance. In many ways they advanced Lebanon's political recovery. Voting participation rose to 44 percent, still well below the 1972 level, although the Interior Minister claimed that the "real" figure might have been 66 percent, owing to the number of absent and dead voters on the electoral rolls (Lebanon Report 1996: 24). The results were a decisive victory for the post-Ta'if regime led by Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, thus further entrenching the Syrian-dominated post-Ta'if establishment and (for better or worse) enhancing its stability. Many of its 128 members had been affiliated with the once-dominant militias of the civil war...

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